Philippe Delord’s Japan

The French watercolourist Philippe Delord has titled his excellent book about the seaside route from Tokyo to Kyoto Hiroshige’s Japan, as an homage to the great woodblock printmaker. The title of this post is my homage to Delord. Six years ago, Delord visited each location Hisoshige depicted in his 1832 print series The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido, painting each station as it is today. Tokaido means “Eastern Sea Road” and in the Edo period it was the main route spanning the 500 kilometers between Tokyo (then Edo) and Kyoto. Today, the Shinkansen (bullet train) still follows that route.

Delord’s website tells us that, before his visit to Japan, he travelled to Egypt, following the trail of the eighteenth-century artist and traveler Louis-Francois Carras, and to the countries bordering the Red Sea, tracing the footsteps of the writer Henry de Monfried, producing a book about each voyage.

The Book, not the Kindle

I read a short review of Hiroshige’s Japan in a New York Times book review special about summer reading. The travel section focused on writers following trails travelled by writers and artists of previous generations. I now read almost all my books on a Kindle, but a small black and white device would not do justice to a large (11 inches wide by 9 inches high) book with many colour illustrations. The Kindle edition cost approximately $30 (Cdn), whereas the hardcover edition was available from various independent sellers for approximately $50, including shipping. The extra expense and wait of approximately two weeks were well worth it. The book came out in French in 2017 and was translated into English and published in 2021 by Tuttle, a small publisher based in Rutland, Vermont that has had a large presence publishing English-language books about Asia, especially Japanese art and culture.

Delord as Watercolourist

The Tokaido had stations every 10 kilometers. Delord used a small motor scooter to find each station and sometimes he could find the exact viewpoint in Hiroshige’s print. Delord did not try to repaint Hiroshige’s setting almost two centuries later. Rather, he painted what he found noteworthy in the current day settings that correspond to Hiroshige’s stations.

Delord does not strive for photographic realism. With a light and skilful hand, he paints his impressions of his chosen locations, often including people inhabiting them. Some of his watercolours use a full colour palate, others are black-and-white sketches, and others are something in-between. Many depict modern infrastructure, such railroads, highways, and ports, and modern amusements such as playgrounds, parks, and love hotels. But he also depicts Buddhist temples, wayside shrines, and traditional inns and restaurants, some that have been restored. (I’ve used one of his watercolours as the thumbnail for this post on my home page, easily reachable by clicking on my name at the top of this page.) Delord’s watercolours are, quite simply, joyous. Looking at them is a way to be in the moment.

Delord as Traveler

Delord’s choice of a 125 c.c. motor scooter was made for both flexibility and cost. It is clear that Delord also has a constrained budget. Many of the locations he visited did not have nearby hotels, so he often chose to sleep rough. He mentions carrying a hammock to sleep in groves, sleeping in a fishermen’s hut, sleeping on the verandahs of tea houses and Buddhist temples, sleeping on park benches, and, when all hotel rooms in Kyoto were taken during a busy holiday season (Golden Week), sleeping in an open water pipe. He also crashes with a friend, stays in a budget inn with communal meals and sleeping areas, and stays in a capsule hotel. Delord appears to be a man who lives for his art but who has perfected the art of living frugally.

Delord as Interpreter

The third layer of meaning in Delord’s book is in his interpretation of Hiroshige’s woodblock prints, each of which is displayed alongside his own watercolours and narrative. This was the part of the book that least interested me, perhaps because the Hiroshige prints were very small and it was hard to make out the details that Delord was describing and interpreting. (I could have gotten larger copies of the prints, but my primary focus was on Delord.) Maybe at a later date I will return to this part of his book.

Modernity and/or Tradition?

Lori Soderlind, the reviewer for The New York Times, writers that Delord’s “watercolors of a modern, industrialized world contrast starkly with Hiroshige’s 53 depictions of travelers passing fields and clear water on foot” and that Delord’s work “shows how thoroughly upended our surroundings have been in what was, in wider perspective, only a short time.”

My conclusion about the meaning of Delord’s work is somewhat different. I have visited Japan several times, most recently in 2015 with my then 12-year-old son. We paid considerable attention to Buddhist shrines and temples and kabuki theatre and stayed at ryokans and soaked at traditional bathhouses. But we also watched baseball and visited factories. Japan is one of the fortunate cultures where tradition and modernity coexist. Perhaps one of the reasons is that the Japanese people can take pride in the work of great artists like Hiroshige and be stimulated by their work to embrace and preserve traditional culture. Delord has beautifully captured the blending of tradition and modernity that characterizes Japan, and his work deserves widespread attention.

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